Back when I was a baby gay, a mere lad of 20, venturing out to see the world on my own, I was blessed to be welcomed into the fold by a strong couple, Louis (or Luigi as I had come to know him) and Ira. I call them my Fairy God Gays, because in my mind, they saved and guided me through some rough times in my young queer life.
Louis and I met while we studied Italian/s in Florence one very muggy summer. He quickly picked me out of a gaggle of youths as the gay one in the group and took me under his wing. I was out, but just barely. It was a week into our month long trip when Louis asked me if I wanted to go to a gay bar with him. It was Italy after-all and I was of drinking age, so I nervously accepted and met him at a piazza after dinner. The bar was at the back of a dead end alley, and looked like a dumpster with a door and you had to knock in order to get in since there was no outside handle. He knocked, my heart fluttered and we were under ground in a few moments (in what I still consider to be the most unique gay bar I’ve ever been to).
A month wiled away and I found myself back in Santa Cruz. Things weren’t going great at home for me, I had been out for two years and my mom and I still weren’t really speaking. Occasionally she would ask about school and work, or we would sit awkwardly in silence while Will and Grace gave hope to people everywhere that it was ok to be gay, as long as you were boring, lived with a woman and never had gay sex. I was lucky that Louis and Ira were there to tell me differently. They knew things weren’t great at home and opened their home to me if I ever needed a place to get away, or even spend time with a gentleman caller. They also opened their hearts.
When I would visit for dinner, I would bring them stories from the front lines of the young gay happenings. Mostly what I had to tell them was how many times I’d been to the Castro that week and that I saw someone have his crotch crushed with a boot on the back patio of the Lonestar Saloon. They would tell me about their most recent trip around the world, or cruise, or foreign port and show me how big the world was. They also told me what it was like to be gay (not on TV), how we got to where we were and what it was like before I stepped into the rainbow light. I heard about New York City before Stonewall, where men were dragged from gay clubs and beaten by police. I remember Ira telling me about sitting on a bus bench and waiting for the right time to run into a gay club when he thought no one was watching.
Aside from my lesbian best friend (Kristin), I didn’t really know any other queer people. Sure I knew some people from the bars and clubs, but the only thing I was learning from them was how to give a BJ on a dance floor and not get caught, and sneak your underage friends into a bar. No one was telling me about the AIDS crisis that started shortly after I was born, how to prevent it, or stop myself from getting it, or even why using condoms was important. When you come from a small town, these are not the things you are taught in your day to day life (I do know how to rebuild an car engine, slaughter livestock and prepare it for a meal, also how to make flour tortillas from scratch though).
Louis and Ira taught me. They showed me. I saw that I had more options to my life than being an AIDS victim, or a musical theater gay, or living a pseudo hetero life with a straight girl so that people would not be threatened by my queerness. I could be a doctor, like Ira, perhaps run a political campaign like Louis, and I could see other parts of the world and live my life the way I wanted, because they did. They lead by example. They shared their life and their history, and it has become my history. It was my history before I knew about it, I just never had anyone to teach me.
Queer people don’t often have the opportunity to learn about our history until it’s forced upon us. Our parents don’t teach little rhymes to us like “Judy, Liza, Barbra, Bette. These are names I shan’t forget” to bestow a love of those brash broads of the screen and stage in our hearts. Our parents don’t talk to us about us about Harvey Milk and the White Night Riots, or the Upstairs Lounge in New Orleans where more than thirty gay people were locked in a nightclub while it was burned to the ground. They’re not going to drive their kids to Disneyworld, and pass by the Pulse nightclub and say “this is where 50 queer people (and their allies) were gunned down, fueled by rage, discontent and self hate.” Queer people need to teach queer people about where we come from, what we’ve been through, and why it matters that, as much as I hate crowds, parades, and sitting in the hot sun, I go to pride to be present and accounted for. It’s a history that we inherit, whether we want it or not, so we can be ourselves even when people don’t want us to be.
Ira died on Sunday. He and Louis were together for 36 years. It’s hard for me to imagine that this man is gone from my life. The last time i saw Ira, I had been lucky enough to be invited to their San Francisco home for pride and mingle with a few gay men from a generation that was almost all but wiped out. I could never get enough hugs from Ira when I was leaving the party, his affection was always so genuine and real. I’m blessed that Louis gives amazing hugs, spins an amazing tale, and is around to help guide and chide me. I still have a lot to learn, and a lot to teach, we all do.